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The Chicago retailer Ikram Goldman, photographed in December 2005
During New York Fashion Week this past February, the industry’s heaviest hitters crammed into a runway show by Jason Wu, who, at 28, has become one of fashion’s most talked-about designers. Anna Wintour, the powerful editor of Vogue, was there. So was Ken Downing, the influential fashion director at Neiman Marcus, and Sally Singer, the former Vogue editor who recently took the helm of T: The New York Times Style Magazine. Sitting among them was the celebrated Chicago retailer Ikram Goldman, who, for the previous two years, had served as the unofficial stylist for Michelle Obama. As much as anyone in that front row, Goldman had made Wu a household name.
After rising to prominence in Chicago by building a roster of high-profile clients who can drop $40,000 in one visit to Ikram, her Rush Street clothing store, Goldman dressed the First Lady in a glittering white one-shoulder Wu gown for the January 2009 inaugural ball. Wu’s career subsequently catapulted: His revenue shot from $800,000 in 2008 to a reported $4 million in 2009. The tipping point was the inauguration gown, but it didn’t hurt when Michelle Obama wore his bright pink sheath two months later on the cover of Vogue.
At Wu’s show in February, Goldman, 43, sat next to her husband and business partner, the Chicago attorney Josh Goldman. With her typical expansive enthusiasm, she chatted up the influencers who feature her in their publications: Vanessa Friedman, the fashion editor of the Financial Times; Vogue’s fashion news director Mark Holgate; Singer, a friend. But not everyone who runs into Goldman feels entirely at ease. “When I see her, it’s fine, we’ll say hello. But it is not a warm, friendly relationship,” says one former Ikram employee, who left the Chicago boutique to work in New York and has crossed paths with Goldman since. The former employee likened working for Goldman to working for the overbearing fashion editor in the book and movie The Devil Wears Prada.
On her home turf, Goldman has alienated some Chicago retailers with hardball business tactics and her capitalization on the clout that comes with dressing the First Lady. But she learned her trade at the knee of another Chicago fashion icon, Joan Weinstein, the former owner of Ultimo. Goldman’s instinct, her eye, and the enviable cache associated with her name have allowed her to amass a list of A-list shoppers, among them Desirée Rogers, the Johnson Publishing CEO and former White House social secretary, whom she counts as a close friend. But even among her inner circle, she keeps a tight grip on her favorite accessory: a no-exceptions cloak of privacy. (She declined to be interviewed for this story.) That has not stopped industry watchers from discussing the larger-than-life Goldman with their usual gusto, particularly in light of recent developments.
In February, it was reported that Goldman was no longer advising Michelle Obama, and a former protégée—Meredith Koop, a onetime Ikram saleswoman who is Obama’s personal aide—is now widely identified as First Stylist. Goldman, meanwhile, has turned her attention to new ventures. In May, she will be honored with the Legend of Fashion Award from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which Singer plans to present (Chicago magazine is a sponsor of the event). This year also marks Ikram’s tenth in business—during which she will take the biggest risk of her career. She is opening a new store at 15 East Huron Street in May, and the move will quadruple her retail footprint in Chicago. It’s a bold strategy, and observers are left wondering whether her magic touch and cadre of oft-photographed shoppers are enough to support a mini department store that represents a remarkable change in her merchandising formula.
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Photograph: Anna Knott